Monday, 1 August 2016

La Contribución de Sangre
The Spanish Army in the 1930s

A new Spanish officer of La Legión prepares to kiss the bandera of his tercio and to take his oaths of loyalty and willing sacrifice for 'La Patria'.
The Spanish military - La Fuerzas Armadas Españolas had a long and proud tradition of service. In 1936 it was divided into two arms; The Army - the Ejército de Tierra (117,500) and the Navy - the Armada (20,000). Both of these services fell under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of War, along with two paramilitary security services; the Guardia Civil (34,000), a national rural gendarmerie tasked with maintaining internal law and public order and the Carabineros (16,000), who were a similar organisation tasked with border security, prevention of smuggling and the collection of customs duties. Spain's population in 1936 was around 24 million, so the armed forces composed less than one percent of the population.

On top of the armed forces themselves, there were the paramilitary security services. There were around 2,000 men of the Guardias Forales (forces maintained by individual provinces, similar and supplementary to the Guardia Civil) and some small unique forces - the Miñones (a provincial police force operating in the Basque Region) and the Migueletes (essentially merely a symbolic and social volunteer militia in Catalonia, Valencia and Andalucia), which had a paper strength of just under 258,000 men. The most useful organisation were the Guardias de Asalto (17,000), who were the urban counterpart to the Guardia Civil, albeit better armed. All of these groups, as well as the Guardia Civil and Carabineros, recruited men who had performed their military service; although in the case of the Migueletes they were probably retirees in the main.

In Spain the army was not only the 'senior service', but was also seen as one of the 'three pillars' of the Spanish state, alongside the Monarchy and the Church. The military's involvement in politics was also traditional and within it existed a culture that promoted the idea that the Army were the guardians of the 'spiritual nation'. This mentality was ultimately illustrated by the failed military coup which started the Spanish Civil War. While such an undertaking was illegal under the Constitution, to the majority of Spaniards it was an anticipated event, even if they did not think that it was a necessary one. Nevertheless a significant portion of the population supported the act itself, seeing communism, socialism and anarchism, as being threats to the Spanish way of life, its values and traditions.

Until the Civil War itself, Spain's military as a whole was underfunded and suffered from declining manpower in successive efforts to reduce costs, while at the same time attempting to keep up to date in terms of military technology. Following the end of the 'Moroccan War' (The Rif Rebellion) and the end of Primo de Rivera's dictatorship, the army was both reduced in size and re-organised. The top-heavy command structure was also thinned out. Aware that dissent against the Republic would likely manifest itself from within the officer corps of the army, a traditionally conservative and reactionary body, likely dissenters were the first to be removed or demoted and posted far away from the capital.

By 1936 only the somewhat liberal Navy was at its full authorised strength. The Air Service (then part of the Army) had 80% of its personnel and the Army of Africa 75%. The Peninsular Army was supposedly to carry 117,500 men of all ranks, but in fact only mustered some 60,000 or so. The missing men were almost wholly from amongst the ranks and most units had their full complement of officers and senior NCOs. Besides continuing the practice of sending third-year recruits on home on indefinite unpaid leave, the Republic reduced the quotas for the selective levy, in the hope that by weakening the army it would reduce the threat it posed to the government.

Despite there actually being a Peninsular Army, the Government still felt it necessary to bring troops from the African Army Corps into mainland Spain. In 1934 both the Legion and the Moroccan Regulares were bought over to help put down the Catalan and Asturian 'revolutions'. Here Legionarios are paraded in Barcelona.
The Officer Corps

The Spanish Army was the typical arm of service for both the aristocracy and social climbers from the Cacique families. The infantry and cavalry were the most prestigious formations, while those with more technical minds opted for the Air Service, Artillery and Engineers. There were also a small number of officers who had been promoted from within the ranks for meritorious service, but it was rare for them to advance beyond the rank of captain.

Progression through the rank structure was possible without setting foot outside of Spain, but the most rapid career progression was via service in Morocco. This had led to the formation of 'juntas' within the Peninsular Army, who demanded reform and a promotion system based on seniority; there were far too many 'old lieutenants' in the Peninsula Army and too many upstart Africanistas higher up the chain of command.

One such upstart was Francisco Franco. Having failed to gain a commission in the Navy, he began his military career in the Infantry, before transferring to the Regulares. He became the youngest major in the army due to his meritorious service with them. After three years back in Spain, he joined the newly formed Spanish Legion in 1920 as its second in command under Lieutenant-Colonel Millán Astray and was again promoted and became its commander in 1923. With one general for roughly every 500 men, his career should have stalled, but having been brought to the King's attention with his exploits and his subsequent actions at Alhucemas in 1925, he became the youngest brigadier-general in the Army in 1926.

While Franco's case is perhaps unusual in the rapidity of his promotion, other generals and senior officers also had similar, but somewhat less meteoric, career progression as a result of serving in Morocco. Influence and patronage were also important aspects of how promotion in the Army operated and Franco was fortunate in being both competent and a royal favourite.

While typically an officer would spend his service within a single regiment, there were occasional postings to the Guardia Civil, the Carabineros and of course the General Staff. Such cross-postings were common at all levels. Gonzalo Queipo de Llano, Governor-General of the Carabineros in July 1936, had previously been commander of the first military district and his predecessor, Miguel Cabanellas Ferrer, had moved on to command the 5th Division.

While there were some very good officers and some very humane ones, there were also those who were either indifferent or ignorant of any abuses their men were suffering. King Alfonso XIII's reputed remark, upon being informed of the massive losses at Annual in 1921, was "chicken is cheap"; a sentiment no doubt shared by some of his officers. Some officers, no doubt also in league with non-commissioned officers, opted to supplement their pay by various scams, which ranged from selling part of their men's rations or buying-in sub-standard local provisions at lower prices, to actually selling weapons, ammunition and equipment; even to the Riffis themselves!

Other officers often spent most of their time away from their units, either at home, or in the numerous 'Casinos' (essentially a cross between a gentlemens' club and chamber of commerce) which existed in most local towns and cities. The situation was acute in Morocco itself, with many officers absenting themselves from their units for the delights of Melilla or Ceuta. During his advance to Annual in 1921, General Silvestre had famously even insisted that his Colonels remain in Melilla with him, rather than being in the field with their units. He also instituted a rota which allowed all officers to 'holiday' in Spain during the Summer months.

Men of La Legión in Morocco c. 1925. Spanish units not only carried battalion banderas into battle, but each company also had its own smaller banderilla (centre), although this was more usually carried attached to the rifle by a device which used the bayonet fitting of the Mauser Rifle.
The Political Army

The military's involvement in politics was traditional in Spain, where a culture existed which saw the Army in particular as the 'Guardians of the Spanish State'. In recent history, the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, resulted from the Army's intervention in politics and what it perceived as a threat to both the political make-up of Spain and the Church. The 1930s were no different, despite a return to the democratic process and the general consensus was that socialism and more specifically communism, was a threat to Spain, Spanish values and its traditional way of life.

In view of this, in 1933, a secret society was created within the military, the Unión Militar Española (UME), which was composed of selected officers from across all branches of the military. While predominantly conservative and traditionalist, it also had links through some of its members to the Falange. While predominantly composed of younger low-ranking officers, some senior officers were at least aware of its existence. Surprisingly the chief protagonists of the 1936 Coup were largely not members of the UME itself, although the organisation was to become central to the execution of it.

In response to rumours that such a group existed, two existing secret groups which had been formed during Primo de Rivera's dictatorship and whose sympathies were with the Republic; the Unión Militar Antifascista (UMA) and the Unión Militar Republicana (UMR), united to form the Unión Militar Republicana Antifascista (UMRA). This group was likewise formed from young and low-ranking officers, but also significantly included a number of officers within the Assault Guards too.

While the UME had most of its members within the Army, it was also present to a degree in the other services. Likewise UMRA had its core membership within the Navy, Air Service and Assault Guards, but it too had members within the Army itself, although within the African Army Corps, they were a distinct minority. In the main however most of the officers in any of the sectors of the military, belonged to neither group and while generally conservative and traditionalist, they obeyed the orders they were given via the normal chain of command. Difficulties were to arise however, when this chain of command led up to senior officers planning to overthrow the lawful government.

The Quinta

As early as the 15th Century compulsory military service had been instituted in Spain, traditionally by what was known as La Quinta - 'the fifth'; by which in theory one man in five was to serve Spain as the population's Contribución de Sangre (contribution of blood) for the homeland. While the Ministry of War oversaw the issue of required quotas to the various regions, the actual selection lottery was undertaken by the local juntas and municipalities themselves. The yearly lottery in these included all the names of all those who had turned eighteen in the preceding twelve months and had become a rite of passage for Spanish youths. Despite conscription ending in Spain some years ago, youths in many communities still celebrate the event as their 'coming of age'.

The bulk of conscripts went to the Army - the Ejército de Tierra, the remainder to the Navy - the Armada. Until 1912 it was possible to avoid service, either by paying a fine, or providing a substitute willing to serve instead. As a result the burden of military service had fallen on the poorest people in Spain; those who could not afford to buy themselves out, or who served in return for a payment their family would benefit from. After 1912 this practice was stopped and all youths took their chances with the lottery. For the payment of a charge however (1,000 pesetas), the arm and unit of service could be selected, which allowed those who could afford it to be posted to a locally-based unit, or into a preferred branch.

The 'lucky winners' of the lottery faced an eight year service period, three of them in training and active service, with the a further five years on the active reserve. However with an expanding population, Spain could not afford to keep even a fifth of its men on active duty and by the use of charges the numbers of men in service were reduced. For another payment of 1,000 pesetas, the term of active service, including the three months basic training, was reduced to eight months, or even to five for a payment of 2,000 pesetas. It had also become traditional to send third year conscripts home on indefinite unpaid leave within Peninsula units too. By this method Spain maintained a small trained force, backed by a large number of part-trained reserves, which theoretically reduced full mobilisation time in the event of war.

Men from one of the mountain regiments pass in review before the Spanish Civil War.
Conditions of Service

In the Peninsula active duty was not overly onerous however. Those who had paid for a local posting were liberally issued overnight passes so they could go home at night. Even when their turn came for night duty, there were usually sufficient men who had no home to go to, or who lived too far away to benefit from a pass, who would do that duty in return for cash or other rewards. When the coup was launched in July 1936, half of the Army was absent from their barracks, which limited the forces the rebels could call on. Halting the practice prior to the coup would have signalled the rebels intent however and normality was maintained for as long as possible.

The other side of the coin was that actual conditions of service were exceptionally poor. Pay was very low and deductions were made for all manner of things, officially and unofficially. Within the rank and file promotion was by seniority, with only those who had chosen the Army as a career attaining any rank above sergeant. While there were obviously some very good NCOs, there were also a lot of poor ones. With often nothing worthwhile awaiting them in civilian life, enlisting past their compulsory service guaranteed their progression through the rank structure. Between 1931 and 1936 they could even qualify as 'sub-lieutenants' in command of a platoon.

As was the case within most of the armies of the day and typified by the brutality evidenced in movies about the French Foreign Legion, the non-commissioned officer was king of all he surveyed. With officers often absent and even duty officers often considering that being 'near to the barracks' discharged their duty in that respect, everything was left to the NCOs to do. The whole range of activities which we now refer to in a general sense as 'bullying' or 'abuse' were commonplace and typically a cunning NCO would also do it within 'regulations'. With officers relying on their NCOs as caretakers while they did as they pleased, most of them would back their NCOs against any complaints made.  

All this aside, for many conscripts their period of service was marked by endless boredom and inactivity. Other than basic drill during their initial training period, there was little to do and field drills and exercises few and far between. With few officers present to promote training exercises and NCOs who had no incentive to prepare their charges for war, very little happened on a day to day basis. The poet Laurie Lee travelled across Spain just prior to the civil war and described the soldiers he encountered on the way, as spending their days and evenings outside the barracks gate, sharing bottles of wine they had pooled their meagre funds to buy, playing dice or cards, while one of their number perhaps strummed a guitar.

Active Service

For troops in the Peninsular the enemy may have been boredom, but in Spain's Moroccan colony it was the ever present Rifeño who occupied the minds of the men serving there. Even in 'peace' a shot from a solitary 'paco' (Spanish slang for a Rif sniper, from the sound a ricocheting bullet makes) could end a life. If not that, disease, lack of water and a merciless sun, were also up to the task. For those conscripts who were born in Morocco, service there was often inevitable. What often added to the misery, was that at some locations, Spain was visible over the sea on a clear day.

Colonist conscripts usually either went into the Batallónes de Cazadores de África, or into the Regulares as members of machine gun companies. If they gained promotion in the Regulares, they might find themselves the corporal of a light machine gun escuadra (there was a limit to the amount of trust Spain had for its indigenous troops). When numbers were below establishment however, even conscripts from the Peninsula might find themselves posted to a unit in the Army of Africa.

Unlike the Peninsular units, service in Morocco was for the full three years of active duty. When there was trouble in the hills, recruits who had not even completed their basic training might find themselves on the march, carrying a weapon they had not been taught to use. In 1920 the editor of 'Diario El Sol' described the army in Morocco as being "full of suffering, hungry, sick and hopeless without material". By the end of the Moroccan War things had improved a lot, but conditions were still harsh; Morocco was after all a very unforgiving environment for soldiering.

Following 'The Disaster of Annual' in 1921, new equipment had been introduced and a new regular formation La Legiòn, created to undertake offensive operations alongside the indigenous Regulares. For the Cazadores static duties were therefore to become the norm, along with the boredom that came with it.

While it seems somewhat primitive by the standards of even the Second World War, the Spanish Army, like every other army of the time, even the British, was almost wholly reliant on horse transport in 1936. Impressions to the contrary, the German Army was still heavily reliant on them right up to 1945.

The Moroccan War saw the introduction of new weapons and equipment, which on paper brought Spain's army into the 20th Century. Each section was to have a light machine gun and light mortars were to be introduced to replace the rod-type rifle grenades then in use, at an issue rate of two per platoon. In actuality however, only La Legiòn seems to have been equipped at full complement of everything and the Regulares only with their full complement of automatic weapons.

On the Peninsula however, there were less than half approximately of each type of weapon existing to outfit the army at its peacetime establishment, let alone its war time one. Even the previously somewhat more numerous Hotchkiss medium machine guns available, had been reduced with their assignment to the newly created Assault Guards in 1931. When army arsenals were opened at the start of the 1936 coup, there was a dearth of every weapon type except rifles, some of which dated to the 19th Century.

The army had also barely made any progress towards mechanisation either. While some artillery and supply units received motor vehicles, the mule and horse remained the major load bearer. The sole cavalry division boasted a single armoured car squadron and despite being impressed with the ten Renault FT tanks it had purchased, the plan to create two armoured regiments of them had got no further than splitting the existing vehicles into two groups for training.

Both the Republican and Nationalist armies were to experience quite a rapid modernisation experience once the Civil War began and the army which emerged from the Civil War was far more 'modern' than that which existed before it began.

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